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2021 Chicago Cubs: Evaluating the Impending Free Agents

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The Cubs will have many decisions to make regarding their star players from the 2016 World Series core, as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez all hit free agency following this season. The 2021 Chicago Cubs still have an outside shot at winning the division, as FanGraphs gives them an 18.7% chance to win the Central. Of course, this is with low projections on their pitchers, as many of them are finesse pitchers whose ERA will consistently overperform their peripherals. Either way, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the front office will have decisions to make at the trade deadline and beyond.

The 2021 Chicago Cubs’ hopes of making the playoffs rely on the pitching showing up, as they’ll still have no shortage of offense. In 2020, many of the Cubs’ big bats, especially their three impending free-agent stars, struggled to get going during the shortened season. Their pitching, especially Yu Darvish, who has since been trading away, and Kyle Hendricks, stepped up, as well as Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, and Willson Contreras.

2021 Chicago Cubs Impending Free Agent: Kris Bryant

Kris Bryant won the Rookie of the Year in 2015, then won the MVP Award in 2016, and backed it up with another elite season in 2017. Since then, Bryant has been injury-prone, inconsistent, and had a downright bad year in 2020. He’s still the starting third baseman of the 2021 Chicago Cubs and will look to prove himself in his age-29 season as he enters free agency. Bryant and the Cubs reached an agreement at $19.5 million to avoid arbitration for his 2021 salary.

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Bryant, according to FanGraphs’ WAR and Value, was worth $3.8 million in 2020, while he was paid $6.9 million, the first time in his career that he wasn’t worth his salary. Overall, through his six-year career, he has been paid $32.8 million, while being worth $226.8 million, a great bargain for the Cubs. Since 2018, Bryant has slashed .269/.368/.478, with a .368 wOBA, 125 wRC+, 4.9 BsR (baserunning runs above average) and 7.7 WAR. Despite his injuries, Bryant has still been very productive offensively, and inconsistent defensively.

In terms of future outlook, Bryant’s career has been on a downward spiral, and he has plenty to prove in 2021. Right now, Bryant’s market value is likely somewhere in the six-year, $130-$150 million range. Of course, this is certain to change depending on how well Bryant plays for the 2021 Chicago Cubs, but if he plays as he’s projected to, he should be in the $20-$25 million AAV range once he hits free agency.

Right now, his trade value is at its lowest, so the Cubs didn’t move him during the off-season and barring any major changes, he will be the opening day starter at 3rd base. If Bryant plays well, the Cubs will have a decision to make about whether they trade him at the deadline, or wait until the end of the year and extend him the qualifying offer, but that remains to be seen. A Bryant extension is very unlikely, but it’s still possible that he returns in free agency. The Cubs may be able to get away with letting him go though.

2021 Chicago Cubs Impending Free Agent: Javier Baez

Javier Baez broke out in 2018, finishing second in MVP voting, backed it up with a great year at a new position in 2019, but was the third-worst qualified hitter in baseball in 2020. Baez has established himself as a top-three defensive shortstop in the league, alongside Nick Ahmed and Andrelton Simmons. Baez is still among the best shortstops in the league, despite a horrible season in 2020. His season for the 2021 Chicago Cubs is definitely the most important of his career, as he’ll try to prove that he’s worth a big free-agent payday.

Baez is off to a rough start to 2020 as well, but it’s only been a few games and he’s been a streaky hitter throughout his career, so it remains to be seen what Baez will look like in 2021. Baez’s defense makes him have a relatively high floor, but his 2020 tested that idea. Unlike Bryant, Baez’s market value is tougher to pinpoint. Right, now, it sits around six years, $150 million, which is the price I’d be willing to pay for the defensive wizard.

2021 Chicago Cubs Impending Free Agent: Anthony Rizzo

Anthony Rizzo seemed like the most likely of the group to remain a Cub, but him and the team could not come to a deal prior to the 2021 season. Rizzo is still the captain of the 2021 Chicago Cubs, but he was only offered 5-years, $70 million from the club, which Rizzo declined. Talks have stopped due to the season starting, so Rizzo will either hit free agency or be traded away.

Despite a down year in 2020, Rizzo is still one of the most consistent players in all of baseball, and still an integral part of the 2021 Chicago Cubs offense. The issue with a Rizzo extension is that first baseman aren’t as valuable as other positions due to the true lack of defensive value. Since his first year with the Cubs in 2012, Rizzo has played 1223 games, has 5291 PAs, and has a .274/.372/.491 slash line with 229 homers, a 133 wRC+, 30.9 WAR, and .370 wOBA. Rizzo is entering his age-31 season, so a long-term extension isn’t likely, but if the first baseman hits free agency, he should garner attention from many teams.

How Should the 2021 Chicago Cubs Handle Their Impending Free Agent Stars?

This question is tough to answer, especially from a fan’s perspective. We have limited information regarding the team’s relationships with the players, but all three have verbally (at the very least) shown interest in staying with the Cubs. Entering a rebuild, keeping the 31-year-old Rizzo around makes little sense from a pure baseball perspective, and if the 2021 Chicago Cubs struggle, it may be in their best interest to trade him at the deadline. Obviously, it would be tough for Cubs’ fans to swallow seeing Rizzo go, but outside of his veteran leadership, he wouldn’t bring much to a rebuilding team, whose next window of contention won’t line up with his.

Bryant and Baez are two and three years younger than Bryant, respectively, so extending them long-term makes more sense from a pure baseball perspective. The case for Baez getting a long-term deal is that great shortstops are very hard to find, but the Cubs have multiple young prospects at the shortstop position including Ed Howard and Reginald Preciado, who was acquired in the Yu Darvish trade.

The case for Bryant is that he’s the best player of the three, and if he produces at a high level in 2021, he’ll be the safest option. The case for Rizzo is the toughest to make, but he brings a veteran presence and is a great clubhouse guy, despite playing a very replaceable position and being the oldest of the three.

The 2021 Chicago Cubs will compete for the division, but following this season, a rebuild is imminent. The next competitive Cubs team may not be until 2023 or 2024, when Bryant and Baez would be in the early 30’s, whereas Rizzo will be in his mid-30’s. If the Cubs and Bryant are able to come to an agreement, he’s definitely the best player of the three. Baez’s inconsistency is a concern, and he often looks lost at the plate, so a long-term deal with him is much more risky.

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